Puccini wouldn't recognize it. `M. Butterfly' brings a Chinese spy tale to stage

M. Butterfly Play by David Henry Hwang. Directed by John Dexter. Starring John Lithgow. Dazzling theatricalism dominates the scene and ultimately wins the day for ``M. Butterfly,'' the mock tragedy by David Henry Hwang at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. The red-saturated visual effects begin with designer Eiko Ishioka's curving ramp, which stretches from the upper right-hand corner of the proscenium down into the orchestra pit. Director John Dexter employs the spiraling abstract freeway as artfully as he guides the performance of a cast brilliantly headed by John Lithgow and B.D. Wong.

Drawing on No and Kabuki traditions, using incidental music that contrasts fragmented Puccini with Oriental pizzicato and percussion, ``M. Butterfly'' tells the forlornly comic tale of an East-West affair that ended in a spy scandal. For his own purposes of irony and interpretation, Mr. Hwang fictionalizes an actual espionage case that shocked French diplomatic and political circles in 1986. The action consists of a long flashback in which imprisoned ex-emissary Ren'e Gallimard (Mr. Lithgow) recalls his doomed romance with Song Liling (Ms. Wong), a star of the Peking Opera whom he met and fell in love with back in the 1960s.

In the course of over-leisurely background reminiscences, Gallimard remembers the events that led to the awakening illicit passions of a young married government careerist. The French naif's preconceptions about the Orient and particularly its women - the latter inspired by ``Madama Butterfly'' - provide Huang with a ready target for satire and ridicule.

Yet the playwight preserves a modicum of sympathy for his smitten adventurer, and Lithgow makes Gallimard's rapture pitiable as well as foolish. He is an all too easy foil for the beautiful, subtly demure Song Liling, whether she is gradually submitting to his advances or exploiting their relationship to meet the new intelligence-gathering demands of Chairman Mao. Among the more amusing scenes in ``M. Butterfly'' are the confrontations between the opera star and Comrade Chin (one of several roles played by Lori Tan Chinn).

The dizzying course of Gallimard's love life is matched by the ups and downs of his diplomatic career. Elevated, to his own surprise, to first consul, he is subsequently sent home after having guessed wrong both about the French in Indochina and the Americans in Vietnam. Meanwhile, in one of the play's more explicit scenes, Gallimard extends his philandering. As satirical observer, Hwang likes nothing better than to range across the East-West horizon for targets of opportunity. Whether in terms of Chinese acrobatics or antic Western behavior, ``M. Butterfly'' is seldom without distractions and diversions.

At the same time, history is recording China's Cultural Revolution and France's popular-front disturbances - both pictorialized at the Eugene O'Neill by Ms. Ishioka's poster-ish dropcloths.

The author and director mingle fantasy, stylization, and vernacular realism. The final transformation scenes are master strokes of theatrical invention and - in the acting of Lithgow and Wong - performance realization.

The cast as a whole responds to the mood and spirit of the writing, even in roles that fall under the heading of thankless. The ensemble, most of whose members play more than one role, includes John Getz, Lindsay Frost, Rose Gregorio, and George N. Martin. Alec Mapa, Chris Odo, and Jamie H.J. Guan are the three nimble black-clad Kurogo (silent helpers and stagehands). Andy Phillips artfully lighted the production; Phyllis Della provided the all-important wigs; Giacomo Puccini and Lucia Hwong composed the music.

``M. Butterfly'' is not a play for all tastes. But as the latest satire on East-West relations by the Chinese-American author of such plays as ``F.O.B.,'' ``The Dance and the Railroad,'' and ``Family Devotions,'' it finds Hwang in lively form.

Because of a typographical error in the Monitor's review of ``M. Butterfly'' (March 23), we incorrectly referred to B.D. Wong (in the role of Peking Opera star Song Lilling) as ``Ms. Wong.'' It should have been ``Mr. Wong,'' and we apologize for the mistake.

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